Blackface Is Not “In Our Past”

photos for poster

Coverage of the winning Halloween blackface “costume” at Brock University got national coverage yesterday. Within a 20 hour span the story was picked up by QMI (Nationally), CBC (Nationally), CTV, Business Insider, Bell Media, Metroland, etc. The event has been one of, if not, the largest media events ever about Brock University.

As the coverage came fast, it was also fairly shallow with outlets largely copying previous stories. As a result of this, the framing of how the issue was discussed was largely the same throughout all coverage – Brock Labour Studies Department had released a statement denouncing the event, the Brock University Students Union responded twice, acknowledging the issue and was backed by the Administration. Almost all coverage focused on the lack of “intent” on the part of the students who wore blackface, and of the crowd that cheered them on. Similarly, almost all coverage focused on the historical context of blackface and minstrel shows.

Brock President Jack Lightstone set this framing with this statement released yesterday morning claiming that the students had a “lack of historical consciousness.” Lightstone accepted that this is a failure of the University, but also used this as justification for the students not facing any kind of reprimand. In that letter, Lightstone also positions himself as a “historian by trade” and goes on to chastise online commentators who claim this outrage is as mere “political correctness.” He goes on to explain – “After emancipation of the black slaves in the southern United States, social mobility and equality was still denied to blacks, both by law in some regions and by social exclusion in others. One of the economic activities permitted them was as entertainers in “minstrel shows”, often to entertain whites. In the vaudeville era of the earlier 20th century, white entertainers blackened their hands and faces in order to imitate black minstrels, thereby intentionally recalling the social norm that blacks’ roles were limited, and among the roles permitted them was the entertainment of others, including – especially – white people.” Lightstone concludes his statement by stating he doesn’t think this was on any of the students minds that night, “I surmise that none of this was on the minds of those at the Halloween party who donned blackface and portrayed themselves as the Jamaican bobsled team.”

Further comments by outside sources have positioned and framed the issue as one of historical context. CBC updated their original story to include comment from McMaster University Professor of African, Global and Human Rights Bonny Ibhawoh,

The costume may seem innocuous to some, said Bonny Ibhawoh, a professor of African, global and human rights at McMaster University. But it hearkens back to a painful time for black North Americans.

Minstrel shows of the 1800s and 1900s depicted the black community in a negative light, Ibhawoh said. So even when students don’t mean any harm, it’s important to use such incidents as teachable moments.

“Incidents like this, gestures like this, cannot be seen outside social and historical context,” he said. “To understand why this would be so offensive to African Americans or African Canadians, one has to look at the history.”

“Go back and watch videos of the minstrel shows of the 1800s and 1900s and see why they were offensive.”

Far from some academic conspiracy, both statements point to the need to place the issue in context. The history of blackface and minstrel is important. The problem with framing the issue in this way though is that it positions the issue as “post racial.” Blackface and minstrel were things which happened – in the past, in specific locations, that no longer occur, etc. The issue then is painted as a post racial hiccup – these students just did not know that blackface and minstrel had existed and therefore their actions were regrettable but not in and of themselves offensive.

By allowing the historical context to dominate, the focus becomes about intent (based upon knowledge) as opposed to the actual act itself – white students painting themselves black as a “joke.” The costume itself, even without historical context, is funny and popular because it is inherently demeaning – it is funny for white people to “be” black people in a white dominated culture. Placed within the context of other offensive halloween costumes this is the same, cisgender heterosexual males dressing up as women, white people donning headresses, gringos in sugar skull, and on and on. These “costumes” are funny, popular and/or exotic, because they are inherent performances of privilege. Historical context could have informed these students on why this was racist – but so could critical race theory, (or sociology 101 – which is a prerequisite on this campus), or ANY critique of power and privilege. You do not have to have a PhD in History to know that blackface is inherently racist. Similarly, framing the issue as one of intent ignores that in historical context – many whites argued that they did not “intend” minstrel and blackface to be racist. Blackface has always been critiqued based upon what the performance/symbol signifies – not based upon the intent of the white people painting their faces.

Two more glaring issues with this framing is that almost all coverage has missed the fact this SAME costume won 2nd Prize at the SAME event in 2007 (h/t @BrockBug). Brock University has had seven years to correct this “lack of historical consciousness.” Although people voiced criticism of this event immediately, Brock President Lightstone claims he hadn’t heard about it until 5 days later. If this event did not receive the amount of coverage that it has – would anything have changed? Unlikely.

On top of that, all of these statements come after the Brock Labour Studies statement which placed blackface in the local historical context – “Very close to Brock University, in Niagara Falls, blackface minstrel shows were aimed at white tourists until the 1950s. However, blackface is not simply a remnant of a racist historical past, but part of a broader set of cultural practices which maintain and normalize anti-Black racism and systemic oppression. Students, staff and faculty at Brock University need to understand that such costumes are not “just a joke”. Regardless of the intent or motivation of the students in question, donning blackface for Halloween is never okay; it is racist, full stop.” Blackface and minstrel were not confined to the early 20th century or to the Southern United States. Brock University opened it doors in 1964 and since the 1950’s it appears to be the home of blackface in the region. This is not just about history, this is about the present day and the future we want to create.

What is still lost is an explanation from the students who wore blackface and those who cheered them on (1000’s cheered them on to win the award – at one of the largest/most attended campus pub nights of the year). Why was this costume funny or popular to them? How do these University students not know that other people are not costumes? If they lack “historical consciousness” – what of their overall consciousness? What do they consider a baseline for basic human decency? All of these questions point to the fact that the re-occurance of blackface at Brock University is an example of the continuation of white supremacy. Blackface is not in our past and talking about it like it is only ensures that it will continue.